Horrors of migrant life

Caroline Brothers
Bloomsbury; £7.99

A short novel about loss, hope, and endurance in the face of adversity, Caroline Brothers’s affecting Hinterland puts two human faces on the estimated 100,000 migrant children wandering across Europe at any time.

Aryan, 14, and his brother Kabir, 10, are Afghan war orphans “in flight over rugged lands”. With their hopes hardening to blisters, and their blisters hardening to calluses, all that keeps them going is the promise of sanctuary in England.

However, the Europe of which the boys have dreamt is never where they find themselves. In place of grand capitals and endless opportunity, these displaced children drift through homeless shelters or sleep rough in public parks. Cities pass for them “like stepping stones across the map” but, instead of gauging distance by miles, they mark their progress by border guards and checkpoints. Hinterland follows them through a gauntlet of hostage-takers and small-town profiteers, with the constant fear of being apprehended staining every page like the cold sweat of the dispossessed.

At times the novel is unbearably real, which should be no surprise given the author’s experience as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. One opens this book in the knowledge that its story fictionalises the kind of invisible exodus occurring every day.

The novel’s documentary power is such that it is capable of shaming the Western reader in their comfortable armchair, warm and cosy as Aryan and Kabir are exploited and cheated all along the way. Yet more than a story of two boys growing up on the road, this is also a striking investigation of why the likes of Aryan and Kabir risk everything for a new life in Europe. Haunting their nightmares are the ghostly spectres of the Taliban, “malodorous creatures with ragged beards who rained rocks down from the mountainsides”. Hinterland’s protagonists did not want to leave Afghanistan but, in the face of conscription by local warlords, they had no choice.

Their psychological journey is thus just as harrowing as the rivers and highways they traverse. The identity the boys desperately try to maintain is tainted by war and dulled by time. The young Kabir, for instance, has had the horrors of Afghanistan imprinted upon him, but he barely remembers the faces of his parents.

In Brothers’s hands this loss becomes a sparse prose poem on the subject of trespass in all its forms. It is a timely debut which pulls no punches in its ending, but one which nonetheless offers touching moments. From the occasional kindness of strangers to the deep strength Aryan and Kabir find within each other, Hinterland is a celebration of the human spirit.

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